Who Teaches the Daleks?: ‘Doctor Who’ and Fulfilling the BBC’s Remit for Educational Programming

New Worlds, Terrifying Monsters, Impossible Things: Exploring the Contents and Contexts of ‘Doctor Who’, edited by Erin Giannini, published by PopMatters, 2016

Operating as a public broadcasting station since 1927, the BBC has been required by Royal Charter to serve the public interest. As such, “The BBC’s main activities should be the promotion of its Public Purposes through the provision of output which consists of information, education and entertainment” (Broadcasting: Copy of Royal Charter 3). This chapter will provide an examination of the ways in which the educational remit of Doctor Who, and the BBC more generally, have grown and changed since 1962, with the show coming to exemplify shifts in pedagogical practices within media and culture throughout its long history.

When Canadian Sydney Newman was appropriated from his job as producer of ITV’s highly popular Armchair Theatre to take over as the BBC’s Head of Drama in 1962, he was charged with increasing viewing figures for the company. Newman felt that “BBC drama was still catering to a highly educated cultured class rather than the mass audience which was not aware of culture as such” and that “the dramas really weren’t speaking about common everyday things’ that an audience could engage with” (Doctor Who: Origins). Consequently, when a gap in the schedule appeared on a Saturday afternoon, Newman was keen to create a program that was both popular and edifying without being rarified or patronizing; in Newman’s own words: “Doctor Who was really the culmination of almost all my interests in life: I wanted to reflect contemporary society; I was curious about the outer-space stuff; and also, of course, being a children’s programme, it had to have a high educational content” (In Their Own Words 6)

Doctor Who was created as a work of science fiction, but a discussion document from the preproduction stages states that: “each story will have a strong informational core based on fact” (Inside the Tardis 19-20). Reflecting on these early meetings, Newman has also added that: “With the educational aspect in mind […] the outer space stories must be based on factual knowledge about outer space. Also, by going back in time we could bring history alive for the young” (In Their Own Words 6). With this dual purpose, in developing the educational dimension of Doctor Who Newman rejected an early pitch in which “scientific troubleshooters” assisted the Doctor, because “no-one would need to teach a group of scientists anything” (Doctor Who: Origins). Settling on the “everyday” yet instructional companions of history and science teachers – traveling with a schoolgirl that they could explain concepts to – the first serial, An Unearthly Child (1.1), endorses the scholastic angle (the first episode in particular features extended scenes and educational montages from Coal Hill School—seen again in the 50th anniversary special [33.14] and throughout series 8 [34]), but it also goes much further. The creators may have believed that they were directing their pedagogical intentions towards the young, but from the first episode, Doctor Who has consistently offered a more complex socio-political educational agenda to all of its viewers.

Remarking upon the first serial, set in the Stone Age, Mark Bould concludes that the companions “normalize certain liberal values as universally superior”, such as educating a cavewoman about “kindness and friendship”, to then “later give lessons in democracy” and lead in the “desacralization and redistribution of knowledge” (“Science Fiction Television in the United Kingdom” 214). The Doctor’s assistants did not need to be traditional educators to fulfill this role, and Tom Steward affirms that “by 1965 the classroom ensemble had all left the programme and been replaced by characters without educational functions” (“Time Monsters and Space Museums”). In Doctor Who, the chief requirement of the companions has developed from audience lecturer to audience surrogate – they just have to be “good” people by their own culture’s standards: a “morality pet” of sorts to the Time Lord. Instead of instructional tutors, Doctor Who developed the genre staple “action hero male” and “attractive female” companion stereotypes out of their original roles to act as counterpoints, contrasts, and compliments to the various iterations of the Doctor’s multiple personalities, allowing for a far more nuanced, if at times exaggerated, presentation and consideration of contemporary issues filtered through a science fiction setting.

With the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi), audiences have witnessed the adventures of Clara Oswald (Jenna Louise-Coleman) and Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), teachers from Coal Hill School – the same school as the Doctor’s first companions. Prior to teaching, Danny was a soldier, but throughout the season, he attempts to move on from the “action hero” cliche – although he still relies upon it when the script requires a sci-fi spectacle. Yet, instead of a complete return to past conventions, in the school-based episode “The Caretaker” (34.6), the teachers do not illuminate upon their immediate surroundings for the pupil/viewer, but discover more about their own histories and interpersonal chemistry through themes such as love, the limits of their fears, and the hold that the Doctor has over his companions. This focal shift towards reflective self-evaluation is arguably just as instructional as the hard science or sociological theories from 1962-65.

As the BBC moved away from a teacher/pupil pedagogical dynamic, the living history aspect also diminished. Newman suggests that “over the years it turned out that – rating wise – the historical ones didn’t capture the audience’s imagination as the science-fiction, outer-space ones” (“Newman at the BBC!” 53). The “Tardis Data Core: the Doctor Who Wikia” currently lists hundreds of real world historical figures that the Doctor or his companions have met across various media; however, there is a significant difference between the early “pure historicals” such as “Marco Polo” (1.4) and “The Highlanders” (4.4), in which a historical problem needed to be resolved within a world that was roughly analogous to the reality of the time period, and the “pseudo-historicals” in which fantastical sci-fi elements intrude, such as can be seen in “The Unquiet Dead” (27.3), in which Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) investigates a zombie outbreak, or “Deep Breath” (34.1), where a dinosaur spontaneously combusts in Victorian England. According to Newman, the original impetus behind time travel was that “in going back in time, it would enable contemporary humans to participate in events which in their classroom were just simply written on a page” (“Newman at the BBC!” 52), but Steward argues that “Doctor Who continued to teach history and science through fantasy and arguably delivered a better quality of education by doing so,” as it moved the “emphasis away from facts and information and on to villains and monsters, compelling viewers to find out about the history independently” (“Time Monsters and Space Museums”).

Furthermore, to also reflect Newman’s “contemporary society” remit, there is more to learn from history than can be gleaned from a visual representation of the known facts. In Robin Redmon Wright’s investigation into the critical public pedagogy of Doctor Who, he found that “Doctor Who started life against the backdrop of Cold War political ideology [but] quickly grew to voice various degrees of political allegory projected through critical lenses—depending on the writers—as its theme and it has maintained this thematic undertone throughout its long history” (“Who’s Teaching Now?” 303).

This shift away from historical ‘reality’ began as early as the second episode of the first series, with the introduction of the Daleks (“The Daleks” 1.2)…


The full 4,300 word version of this article is published in New Worlds, Terrifying Monsters, Impossible Things: Exploring the Contents and Contexts of ‘Doctor Who’, edited by Erin Giannini, published by PopMatters, 2016. 

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